President Trump Is No Good Reason to End a Relationship

Many Americans are very, very angry or distressed that Donald Trump became president of the United States today. In looking for someone to blame, I've seen many swing at what's closest: relatives, friends, or business associates who either voted for Trump, or did not contribute to his possible defeat by voting for the candidate most likely to beat him, Hillary Clinton. In the dock, then, for what might happen to America in the next four years are not just conscious Trump voters, but Jill Stein and Gary Johnson ones, as well as the usual huge percentage of Americans (45 percent this time around) who choose not to vote at all.

(If your communities in social networking and real life have given no examples of angrily writing off or at least deeply straining relationships over Trump, you are fortunate, and can read up on aspects of this line of thinking at any one of these links.)

Some relationships may in fact be entirely based on the joys (they can be real, and libertarians for whom true political value affinity is rare know it well) of amity on big questions of politics and policy, the ethical and prudential role of government, what candidates or parties are best for your vision of America.

If you have a relationship entirely based on patting each other on the back for thinking properly about politics, and that is strained when someone you thought you understood failed to vote for Clinton, perhaps goodbyes in that case are for the best. For some, the sweet pleasures of soulful agreement can shift to the more piquant but still real joys of arguing about politics, but that's hard to do if you know in your bones that political opposition is or must necessarily be a sign of pure evil.

Being mellow about political disagreement might come easier to a libertarian than to most anti-Trump Americans. Libertarians often believe many of the activities furthered by Republicans and Democrats alike constitute grave evils, from wars to big chunks of criminal justice to the way even seemingly minor or benign business regulations can crush dreams, halt wealth creation, and prevent good things from happening. Libertarians have mostly learned to get along with our fellow Americans regardless. The alternative is shoving ourselves to literal margins, unable to happily commune with anyone. No offense to bold embracers of the hermit rebel life out of a sense of righteousness—but that seems like an overly arid existence, lacking in the glories of human companionship.

If you aren't a total policy nerd obsessive, those glories of human companionship shouldn't have much to do with agreeing on who should be president, much less agreeing on how much action on your part was necessary to stop Trump, or whoever, from becoming president. (Trump's success might be particularly unnerving to many who managed to build a personal life where core political agreement can be simply presumed—not that hard when your politics are within a certain narrow range many other Americans agree with. Most polite people seeking a calm, happy social life would rather shut up about politics than argue about it anyway, so such disagreement is often, for all the right reasons, hidden anyway. The widespread adoption of Facebook and other social networks alas makes that a lot harder.)

Whatever pleasures or advantages you get from the vast majority of personal relationships, then, whether it be honoring the bonds of family, a shared past, or just the ability to pass time together in an atmosphere of pleasant mutual affection, amusement, or caring, had nothing to do with the disagreement-free sharing of opinions about the president.

But I'm soft pedaling what's really at issue here, evading the vital point, a passionate anti-Trumper could say. The problem isn't something as bloodless as someone's "opinions about politics."

What's at stake is that it's a very bad thing that Donald Trump is president. (No arguments here, and see contributions from earlier today from Peter Suderman and Nick Gillespie for some of the reasons why.) Anyone who didn't contribute to Trump losing via voting for Hillary Clinton is for that reason responsible for him being president.

That is distinct from, and far worse than, merely wanting him to be president, or not having been sufficiently motivated by the urge to make sure he is not president to vote for Clinton. Not prioritizing preventing a Trump presidency, you might think, is sin enough, and somehow proves that whatever the worst aspect of Trump being president might prove to be, the non-Clinton voter demonstrates that they desired or are responsible for that outcome specifically.

I, and other libertarians including Reason editor-in-chief Katherine Mangu-Ward, have long been attracted to arguments about the ultimate pointless fecklessness of voting. I confess I considered it mostly an intellectual curiosity, a point it was admittedly fun to argue about since it went so against the civic religion, while almost impossible to argue against except with fanciful calls on some sort of meta-will that is supposedly being expressed or suppressed in a single act of voting which in and of itself would not and could not change any actual outcome in the world.

But maybe we libertarians kept that argument alive because we knew clandestinely the day would come when the very foundations of civic peace in a violently divided America might rely on understanding that your vote doesn't really count, creates no actual effect in the world.

Everyone mad at their loved ones or friends or associates over the fact that Donald Trump is president might be better off understanding that, really and truly, it isn't their fault.

It isn't their fault if they didn't vote. It isn't their fault if they voted for Stein or Johnson.

It isn't even their fault if they actually voted for Trump.

It isn't their fault because on most common-sense definitions of "fault" something that would have happened regardless of what a given person does or doesn't do can't be properly seen as their fault. Every single person any one of us knows could have voted for Clinton and Trump would still be president. The act, or failure to act, of a non-Clinton voting loved one did not make Donald Trump president, though the mystical and misleading way we tend to think of voting in our democracy confuses this issue.

Other cases of making tiny contributions to an overall problem that would still be an overall problem whether or not you acted don't fall into the same category. For example, if you are one of 10,000 people pissing in someone's drinking water, that person would still have pissy drinking water whether or not you acted.

But this does not absolve you of blame. You did add piss to the drinking water, which is wrong. Voting isn't analogous, as a single vote in and of itself, whether it happened or didn't, caused nothing bad to happen and could not have prevented something bad from happening.

While it may feel good to hold the people who failed to vote for Clinton responsible in some spiritual, cosmic, sense, in a literal real sense no one you know's actions caused Donald Trump to be president.

What you really have against any present or former loved one or friend, then, can't reasonably be that any of this is actually their fault, in any everyday sense of "fault."

What you are against, then, is that they don't share your sense of urgency about the crisis presented by Trump being president. As above, this needn't have anything to do with whatever reason you had to have a relationship with them in the first place, unless that relationship was based on, say, working together on immigration or trade policy.

But doesn't this still mean that they desire all the evil things the most stern anti-Trumper fears Trump will do, or support all the evil things Trump already is, regardless of what he does moving forward?

Here is where some other seemingly recondite points libertarians tend to like to make about electoral politics come to play.

For one thing, before you assume that "not sharing your passion for keeping Trump out of office" must equal moral culpability for "all the damage you are sure Trump will cause," remember a couple of important aspects of American politics.

The first is that electoral politics presents a crummy indivisible package deal. You can't pick and choose specific aspects of any national leader. (Even if you think you know what a politician will do, there is little chance that they will actually do it.) Someone who didn't vote for Clinton may indeed have felt that someone with Trump's history with expressed attitudes toward woman, haunted by accusations and confessions of sexual assault, should not be president.

But maybe they wanted someone who promised to bring jobs back to America. Or wanted someone they thought was less likely to start a war with Russia over Syria, and were willing to overlook that he was a bad man, even a criminal, for those reasons. (If you voted for Clinton and think everyone who didn't is directly responsible for every bad thing Trump might do, or does, or did, do you accept that your Clinton vote would have made you responsible for the carnage and chaos of any future war with Syria?)

Maybe that voter fell for the constant drumbeats in our culture that told you your responsibility to democracy was to, absolutely for sure vote, and yet also to only vote for someone who "had a chance to win."

And lacking any choice that voter could actually stand behind in good conscience, made a choice based on a perceived least-bad option, not able to give every separate aspect of the candidate's records full weight in and of itself.

But shouldn't everyone have known every bad thing that Trump is sure to do before they vote, and come to the same decision about the meaning of those things in comparison to Clinton on balance? Voters in general also don't know much, as libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has recently argued effectively. (You might think this mass voter ignorance doesn't apply to the specific guilty-of-Trump people you know, but it probably does.)

You might have voted for Trump because you liked what he said about bringing jobs back, and you thought that was more important than whether he was, say, prejudiced against or wished harm on Mexicans or Muslims. (You might even believe, quite sincerely, that booting those who violated immigration law from the country is a good idea without being prejudiced or hateful toward Mexicans in general. I know it's a little hard to imagine, but it's possible; it is uncharitable to presume that everyone who didn't vote for Clinton acted out of the worst possible motive you could imagine, even if you know that lots of Trump supporters definitely did act out of those bad motives. Just because it is difficult for you to imagine how that could be true isn't sufficient reason to believe that a loved one or friend is lying to you when they say that they failed to vote for Clinton but do not in fact hate Mexicans or women or Muslims or the atmosphere and want to see them harmed for the sheer sake of it.) (It might even be possible that not every bad thing Trump's opponents believe he will do, will actually happen; Obama was also elected and governed with a series of fears about his actions that didn't come true.)

Regarding the "bringing jobs back" thing, a Trump voter might not, indeed likely does not, fully understand the likely effects on most Americans' standard of living of Trump actuating his trade protectionism. Maybe it is grossly irresponsible to vote for someone when you aren't sure of the long-term or even immediate effects of everything they might do. But such gross irresponsibility surely applies to every voter, not just the ones who didn't vote for Clinton.

Libertarians have long shouted about the realities of (single) voter powerlessness, (mass) voter ignorance, the absurd package deals of having to vote for candidates and parties, and even, on a meta-level, the problems with centralizing so much decision-making power over our lives and our regnant cultural systems of social aid in one lever whose control can be won or lost so easily. (Perhaps all the time and money spent in political activism encouraging government to perform certain acts of social care might be better spent providing the care, and this might be worth considering whether or not Trump won.) It may be, and perhaps should be, that those horrified about Trump should turn that into at least a little bit of horror over the machine Trump now has vast influence and power over.

Goodness knows we all have the right to hate or cut ties with anyone we want for any reason we want. But those who do so over the results of this election under the belief that the non-Clinton voter caused Trump, or hoped for the worst imaginable outcomes of Trump's presidency, or acted or failed to act out of the worst motives one could imagine, is likely underestimating the benefits that family and friends can bring, and the reasons why comity and companionship are more important than opinions about politics, which are generally the least distinctive, least interesting, and least important aspect of any normal human being.

The more nervous you are about the outcomes of life in Trump's America, the more you should value family and friends. This remains true even if those family and friends aren't as sure as you are that Trump's presidency will lead to a string of intolerable moral wrongs, especially given the choices they were presented with.